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The Economic Warfare Body Count
Whenever there is a debate over the efficacy of sanctioning an authoritarian state, the supporters of the economic war have to resort to the equivalent of a body count to back up their claims.
Vladimir Milov insists that sanctions on Russia are “working”:
Expecting immediate results is unrealistic and even counterproductive. Given time, sanctions may well deter Russia’s aggressive behavior.
Sanctions advocates always point to sanctions’ economic destructiveness as proof that the policy is “working,” but in most cases this doesn’t lead to the targeted state making any of the desired policy changes. Adversarial authoritarian states are least likely to make concessions under sanctions pressure, so whenever there is a debate over the efficacy of sanctioning an authoritarian state the supporters of the economic war have to resort to the equivalent of a body count to back up their claims. Nicholas Miller made this apt comparison several years ago:
Using economic damage to gauge the success of sanctions is like using body counts to measure success in counter-insurgency — it’s an indicator that your policy is having an effect, but does not necessarily imply you’re any closer to achieving strategic objectives.
While sanctions advocates are usually at pains to deny that U.S. sanctions have caused widespread suffering in the targeted country in order to avoid the blame, they are nonetheless eager to take credit for spiking inflation, a plummeting currency, and GDP contraction to “prove” that their policy is “working.”
“Look at all the destruction we have caused!” they say, and then redefine success as nothing more than inflicting economic pain. This was a standard Trump administration defense of their “maximum pressure” campaigns. It didn’t matter if the targeted government’s behavior changed for the better (it didn’t) or if they became more conciliatory (they hadn’t), because their economies were being strangled.
Once sanctions advocates have defined success in these terms, they can say that sanctions are “working” without addressing the strategic goals that the sanctions were supposed to serve. The destructive effects of sanctions become the justification for causing more destruction. They no longer need to be able to show any discernible progress with respect to advancing U.S. interests, because they have made hurting another country for the sake of hurting it their only real goal.
The economic war on Venezuela has certainly been devastating to Venezuela’s economy, but that does not mean that Venezuela sanctions have “worked” except in the crudest, punitive sense. The economic war on Iran has inflicted enormous damage on the Iranian economy, but by every other measure “maximum pressure” has either failed or backfired. The case that Russia sanctions have been any more successful than these other policies is remarkably weak and relies on the same identification of punishment as success.
Emphasizing the punitive nature of broad sanctions is a tacit admission that they aren’t achieving anything useful. Applying coercive pressure is a useless exercise of power unless it can be linked to some tradeoff that the targeted state would be willing to make in exchange for relief. If the sender fails to spell out the conditions for obtaining relief, the targeted state has no incentive to make concessions. If the sender is unwilling to provide relief under any circumstances, sanctions will not deliver positive results and they will persist indefinitely. The more inflexible the sender is and the longer the sanctions remain in place, the more likely it is that the targeted state will simply adapt to the new landscape and accept that sanctions relief is impossible. The frequent use of economic warfare to try to compel other states to change their behavior gradually encourages targeted states and potential targets to begin finding mechanisms that will allow them to evade and endure sanctions.
Sanctions advocates also always plead for more time for their policy to “work.” If sanctions have been in place for five years, they will beg for another five, and if they have been in place for a generation they will demand that they stay in place for two. Sanctions can never fail, they can only be poorly enforced or lifted “too soon.” The advocates say the same thing now about Russia sanctions (“just be patient”), despite the fact that there have been harsher and longer economic wars waged against weaker, poorer countries without achieving any of the stated goals that the sanctionists set at the beginning. Instead of drawing the right lessons from the previous failures, sanctions advocates tell us that we should keep using the same hazardous, malfunctioning tool that we have used before and then expect different results.